Sight and sound

Film Music byPhil Johnson

Late last year Roy Budd's soundtrack for the 1971 British crime thriller Get Carter was released on a new record label, Castle Cinephile. Previously available only on a Japanese album and a British single of the main title theme, both of which appeared at the time of the film's release, the music for Get Carter had long since acquired cult status among DJs and connoisseurs of obscure retro soundtracks. It was even reported that a rare copy of the Japanese album was sold at auction for £1,500, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, the identity of the buyer has not been disclosed.

Although the Cinephile Get Carter release was hardly an event of Titanic proportions, it has surpassed all expectations, selling 25,000 copies so far, with the vinyl edition of the album said to have outsold the Manic Street Preachers' latest chart-topper by ten to one in some shops. While the appeal of listening to old thriller title themes and brief musical cues designed to keep you on the edge of your seat might seem rather doubtful, once heard in the environment of a club the music makes perfect sense, for clubs are often like thrillers already: dark, damp and filled with the promise of sex, violence and sudden danger.

It was in clubs that the vogue for film soundtracks began, before going on to influence the dark and edgy music of pop groups such as Portishead and Massive Attack. "All those English cold war and gangster film soundtracks really inspired us," says Portishead's guitarist Adrian Utley, who is now writing two film scores himself. "What's especially inspiring about the music to Get Carter is that it was done quickly and cheaply with only a few instruments, and it had to be intensely creative to disguise its limitations." These limitations were very real: the music for Get Carter was produced on a budget of £450, and played largely by Budd himself and the other members of his jazz trio, bassist Jeff Clyne and drummer Chris Karan.

Budd's score for The Black Windmill, Don Siegel's 1974 film, is perhaps even better than that for Get Carter. All the best hallmarks of his style are present: taut, tension-inducing strings, antique electronic keyboard sounds distressed by reverb and studio trickery, and the clack and shimmer of obscure Latin American percussion instruments. Incredibly, a couple of tracks even appear to anticipate the contemporary dance music style of drum'n'bass, with the off-beat, reggae-derived rhythms of Karan's drumming reaching the ridiculously fast tempos that these days are produced only by machines.

Roy Budd, who died from a brain haemorrhage in 1993 at the age of 46, was both a significant jazz pianist and the most successful British film composer of his generation. Entirely self-taught, and already performing by the time he was six, Budd learnt his trade as a film composer largely through watching films himself. "I used to go to the movies every day and listen to how it worked," he told Karan. It's also said that Budd obtained his first commission, for Soldier Blue in 1970, by stealth, sending the director Ralph Nelson an audition tape which consisted entirely of music he'd recorded from soundtracks by other composers.

Budd's film scores were recorded live, direct to picture, using - at least after the minimalist Get Carter - orchestras of up to 80 musicians during the boom years of Anglo- American film production in the mid-1970s. The British film music world in which Budd was such a leading light is now a thing of the past, however. Karan says he gets few calls for films these days; much of the big work is contracted out to orchestras in Eastern Europe, where musicians come cheaper. Roy Budd's last great project also remains unfulfilled. Shortly before his death, he completed the recording of a symphonic score for the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera. Written, once again, for an orchestra of 80, the soundtrack awaits its first performance. When it finally gets played, Budd will have the last laugh: for the first time, his music will not be interrupted by dialogue and sound effects.

"The Black Windmill", "Fear is the Key", "Paper Tiger", "Diamonds" and "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" are all available at mid-price on Castle Cinephile

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis